One Woman’s Call to Serve the Hazara People of Afghanistan
A Refreshing Contradiction
Wearing a black turtleneck, loosely tied scarf, and short, brown, wavy hair wisped in white, Ariane is impossibly chic — especially for someone living in conditions where at times pipes freeze for weeks, leaving her and her schools without access to running water. She has a generous smile and patient demeanor, as if she can give each person she talks to all the time in the world, despite running a non-profit and five schools.
As someone who has witnessed unimaginable hardship and personal loss, she has an incredible humility. Crediting God as the source of her strength, she demonstrates the ability to find humor though residing in a place with considerable restrictions. Ariane emanates youthfulness and has a frequent giggle that betrays the personal loss and dangerous living situations she has navigated over the better part of 22 years in Afghanistan.
A Caucasian, Christian widow residing in a conservative, Islamic country, Ariane dwells amidst danger not as someone who lives recklessly but as someone with an unshakable confidence in the God who has called her to this selfless humanitarian work. She is fully aware of the inherent peril of her circumstances but won’t compromise the call of Christ in her life — living as if the grief she has endured has whittled away the superfluous. Ariane is uncommonly steadfast, modest and determined, however she is anything but common. Humble yet elegant, brave yet understated, an expatriate woman living on her own in a culture that values male dominance- Ariane is a refreshing contradiction.
The Call to be Courageous
Living in Colmar, a small town in northeastern France, Ariane met a tall, outgoing man named Jacques in a parachutist club, where their first kiss was free-falling over the rolling hills near the border of where France meets Germany. They married in 1975 and three years later, on New Year’s Eve, had a son named Frantz. As a wife and mother, her life was full of happy memories but when Ariane was forty-years-old, her son was diagnosed with leukemia. Though Frantz fought valiantly and his loving parents provided the best medical care they could find, their only child passed away six months later at ten years of age.
In the midst of devastating grief, Ariane and Jacques struggled to find meaning in their lives. Ariane did not believe in God, still haunted by painful memories of a difficult time in a Catholic boarding school. Her husband, Jacques, had also rejected God in his youth.
“The death of our son created such a gaping void in me that I wanted to kill myself,” Ariane recalls. “I knew how to do it and had everything prepared, but I thought it was not fair to withhold my plan from Jacques who was such a wonderful husband.”
When Ariane told him of her plans, Jacques replied in a way she now believes was the Holy Spirit speaking through him: “Ariane,” he said, “I understand totally how you feel and I am myself completely destroyed, but do you sincerely think that if you commit suicide, this is the best way to find Frantz? Also, our little boy was so brave during his six months of illness, do you truly think that killing yourself is courageous?”
Then he said something that changed the trajectory of the rest of their lives– he implored her to search through all the world religions to discover whether or not God or an afterlife really exists. He agreed that if after one year they did not find serious answers, she could continue with her plan and he would perhaps join her.
From that day forward, Ariane and Jacques bought numerous books about life after death, they read articles about near-death experiences, and studied different religious beliefs, such as reincarnation, New Age spirituality, Hinduism, spiritism and animism.
Finally they ended up in a Catholic monastery and met a very well-known monk, Marc François Lacan, brother of Jacques Lacan- the famous psychoanalyst. They bought their first Bible and when they started to read, some verses touched them deeply as truth. Reading Isaiah 65, the Lord revealed himself to Ariane and she felt God speaking directly to her. As someone who had been uninterested in God until this time, she saw herself in verses 1 and 2: I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. Through Scripture, they were amazed to discover answers to their questions and felt genuine peace in the Christian response to life after death.
“The answer was only in the Bible,” Ariane explains. “And only Jesus gave us hope in resurrection and the eventuality of finding Frantz when we died…”
Ariane and Jacques visited various churches, absorbing what God was teaching them in their newfound faith. Continuing to feel known by God and like he was speaking to them, they finally devoted their lives to Jesus in a Pentecostal Church.
While they still felt incredible sadness at the loss of their only child, they also felt inspired by a new mission to serve the Lord.
In 1999, a fellow believer shared a Christian magazine with them and in it was an advertisement asking people to serve in Albania during the Kosovo crisis. As an opportunity to leave some of their sad memories behind, they embraced this new mission and discovered joy in giving to others.
“Opening up my heart to the poorest people enlarged my heart to others and helped me not to be in tears all the time,” she recalls. “Taking care of poor people made me get back to living again- it helped me to survive my tragedy.”
Upon returning to France, the humanitarian organization Ariane and Jacques were affiliated with presented possible assignments serving either Northern Africa or Afghanistan– they chose Kabul.
Chaos in Kabul
On February 3, 2000 Ariane and Jacques had their first introduction to Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. They arrived in a country that was in complete chaos– buildings were destroyed and the dirty streets were filled with starving people, women were concealed in long, blue burkas, and widows begged on street corners because culture dictated they were not allowed to work. Many husbands and older sons had disappeared– often imprisoned, kidnapped, killed, or taken to war. The men who remained were forced into mosques several times a day to pray. Poverty loomed everywhere.
“Kabul was like a dead capital, no electricity, no restaurants,” she describes.
One day, walking home from work in a place called Ariana, Ariane looked up to see a tall crane with three dead bodies hanging from a wire at the top. People were becoming so desperate from starvation, they would risk stealing food despite the fact public beatings and the amputation of a hand for theft were commonplace.
“There were no jobs at all,” Ariane remembers. “It was an extremely poor and terrible situation. The population suffered a lot.”
Months later, Ariane saw a mother walking with her young daughter, around 13 years old, who was wearing a veil but not a burka. An old pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road– out jumped a man who severely beat the young girl with a stick because she wasn’t wearing a full covering.
“It felt like a desperate and hopeless situation, but we did what we could to help the people around us in need,” Ariane explains.
Ariane and Jacques were working for the United Nations humanitarian agency in Kabul when the tragedies of September 11 struck and the world was glued to their television screens.
“People didn’t know what to do, they did not understand,” she explains.
In Afghanistan at that time, few people had televisions and smart phones didn’t yet exist. Mobile phones were much simpler and not connected to the world via the internet.
Advised by the UN to leave quickly, Ariane and her husband caught the final plane departing Kabul on September 13, 2001. For several months they remained in France, waiting until they could return to the country God had impressed upon their hearts.
“My heart was really suffering for the street children,” Ariane remembers with sadness. “We saw so many of them begging and if we went back, I wanted to help these children and those with the biggest need.”
A New Beginning
Four months after September 11, Ariane and Jacques flew back to Afghanistan. When they touched down in Kabul- they were amazed at the changes. While the city was still poor and electricity had yet to return, there was a new atmosphere. Without the Taliban, there was freedom in the air. Men cut their beards and wore normal European trousers or jeans. Women removed their weighty burkas and face coverings, instead wearing smaller, lighter veils with faces exposed. New public and private schools made education more accessible. Life was returning to Afghanistan and many people rejoiced.
NATO and the International Security Force now occupied the country– American, French, German, Italian militaries built camps everywhere. Millions of Afghans now had jobs and the economy improved very quickly. Electricity and solar panels improved the quality of life, supermarkets emerged, restaurants with different international cuisines opened their doors. Students graduated, becoming the next generation of doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs.
While the country progressed with infrastructure and a new energy filled the city streets, there was simultaneously corruption and a lack of accountability.
“Millions of dollars got in the pockets of the government but not to do the work that should be done to build a good hospital or roads,” she recalls. “Some things were done, but no one really controlled where the money went– we were very discouraged.”
Ariane met numerous highly educated Afghans returning from America or Germany. However, after several months they would leave again because they felt unable to affect lasting change.
“[The Western people] succeeded in chasing the Taliban away– that was a victory,” she recalls, “but after that, they should have really managed work[ing] on having a strong and honest government and they did not.”
Being such a poor country before NATO involvement, Ariane and Jacques felt grateful that Afghanistan was making strides in modernization and that millions of Afghans had gained employment thanks to international aid flowing in. However, they had grown to love the Afghan people and felt an uneasiness that the country was going astray.
While Ariane felt discouraged about some aspects of the country, she focused on ways to make a difference within her city. Her heart continued to be touched for the street children and women of the Hazara community– an ethnic and religious minority group which makes up approximately 20 percent of the population in Afghanistan and has long been subject to much persecution.
Ariane and Jacques founded their own non-governmental agency (NGO), Le Pélican, named after the Pelican in French– a bird that brings food for its young in its large beak. In the Hazara district of Kabul, Ariane and Jacques opened a small school with 14 children which began to grow.
One day, a mother arrived with her seven-year-old daughter, Fatima, wanting her to attend school. The local school would not allow her to attend because she had a hearing impairment.
“No one wants to take my daughter,” she said. “You are my last chance.” Fatima came from a very poor family and her father repaired shoes in the street to earn money. If Le Pélican did not have a place for her, she would likely remain uneducated her whole life and be married by age 14.
“It broke my heart,” Ariane remembers. “I didn’t know what to do but I told her to bring her to the school tomorrow.”
Ariane did not have the appropriate curriculum and didn’t know sign language, but both teacher and student were undeterred. Fatima learned to copy, to lip read, to write. She blossomed during her 10 year education with Le Pélican, eventually becoming a teacher there for students with hearing differences.
Following Jacques’ optimism and vision, they also founded a restaurant, café and bakery. Together with local staff, they trained young boys in the art of baking and how to run a business.
“In a time of peace, we thought maybe tourists would come because Afghanistan is absolutely gorgeous,” she reminiscences with a smile.
However, as fighting between Taliban and Western forces intensified, the Taliban used suicide bombers as a tactic and Afghanistan became uninviting to visitors.
Then in March of 2013, Jacques fell seriously ill, forcing their return to France for medical treatment. He was diagnosed with cancer and after eight months of treatment, her beloved husband passed away on November 16.
Ariane was consumed with tremendous grief. Often in tears, she avoided public places, not wishing to be asked about the family she had lost. In spite of her pain, she continued to seek God’s guidance.
“When my little boy got cancer and died, I did not have any God and that was true suffering…,” she says, “…but when Jacques died, I was a committed Christian and he was too. I prayed a lot for his healing and I was mature enough, I think, to understand God does not answer all the prayers and we cannot criticize him. I prayed a lot for his healing and God decided not to heal.”
Ariane longed to return to Afghanistan, but felt vulnerable returning without her spouse.
“For the Afghan people and the Taliban in particular, if you are a women– it’s bad, if you are an expatriate– it’s bad, if you have no husband– it is the worst and if you are not Muslim, it is just the worst of the worst,” Ariane explains.
“So I have all the bad things against me– everything that does not please the culture of Afghanistan. But my staff, my people, they love me very much and show me a lot of respect, a lot of tenderness, and a lot of love.”
Two months after Jacques’ passing, Ariane was deep in prayer and felt an urgent conviction to attend church. She changed quickly from her pajamas and arrived just in time to listen to a guest speaker preach about Gideon. Like Gideon, she felt too fragile to continue but heard God reply, “You go with the strength I give you.” Ariane stood outside the church and knew she must go back.
The Courage to Continue
Two weeks later, right before Christmas, Ariane peered outside the airplane window as the mountains surrounding Kabul came into view. As the plane descended to land on the tarmac in Afghanistan’s capital city, she mustered her courage.
I must show strength to the Afghans, she thought. My staff, my guards and my teachers- I must show them I have hope in God, I go only because I know God is with me. Jacques is not here, but I have Jesus.
Ariane established a school in Bamyan– located near the center of Afghanistan– a place famous for Buddhist statues carved into the cliff faces in the tenth century, sadly some of which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
Focused on helping the Hazara minority population, she hired 15 employees to run the program in between her monthly visits from Kabul. On a three year contract, the school served 150 deaf and traditionally-hearing children as well as a side project to provide vocational training for women.
Wanting to provide more spaces for deaf children, Ariane focused on programming in Kabul. Public schools in the country typically refuse children with disabilities so they often remain at home, unable to pursue an education.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least one in five Afghan households includes an adult or child with a serious physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychosocial disability. And approximately 17 percent of children in Afghanistan have a disability, with a staggering 95 percent of them having no access to school, as reported by UNICEF.
Ariane is trying to change those statistics. She sees the capability of these children and the love their families have for them; they need a place to learn and develop outside the barriers of misunderstanding, stigma, and dishonor often perpetuated in their culture around disability.
“The kids with disabilities I work with are very intelligent, sincere and tender,” Ariane says in a flowing French accent. “If they feel secure, they can and will progress a lot. They are the ones I love best.”
When the school opened, and families entered the doors to see the brightly-hued furniture, cozy carpeted floors and joyful pictures on the wall, the mothers and grandmothers had tears in their eyes.
“It was the first time they had ever been to a place like that…it was touching my heart deeply,” she says.
Here children of all abilities are welcome, learning writing, sign language, English and computer literacy.
Over the years with the support of organizations like Care and Relief for the Young in the U.K., Le Pélican has grown to include five different schools, serving 345 total students, of which 155 are deaf boys and girls 6-25 years old. Five of them were students from Bamyon who lived with extended family.
“[Founding Le Pélican], the goal was and still is to help as many people as we can- the very poorest of the poor,” Ariane says. “We try to fill the gaps, where there is a big need.”
The Faithful Few
On August 15, 2021, when the Taliban entered the capital city of Kabul and seized back control of Afghanistan, Ariane was in France visiting family and fundraising for Lé Pelican. She was scheduled to return August 25, but there were no planes available. A mass exodus of people were swarming out of Kabul, while she was trying to find a way back into the country she had called home for more than 20 years.
After four months, she secured a return flight. Once she was back in Kabul, local women stopped her in the street and hugged her. “You came back!” they exclaimed. “Everyone left but you did not abandon or forsake us.” Ariane was touched by their gratitude and determined to continue serving this community, even in light of mounting challenges.
The shift of power meant significant changes for the people of Afghanistan. Children and staff were once again separated by gender in schools. Many NGOs, embassies and diplomatic offices had shuttered up. Banks were nearly closed and people could not withdraw more than US $200 a month. With the Taliban implementing Sharia law, men returned to wearing more traditional clothing and grew their beards again; females were asked to completely cover their bodies with long robes and full burkas, although many women did not initially comply.
At first, women began to demonstrate in the streets and were met with force and metal sticks by the Taliban police. Due to the unpredictable violence, Ariane hired two bodyguards to stay close for security and monitoring because there is no French embassy left in the country.
She also needed to meet with Taliban leaders, obtaining permission to continue her projects. In doing this, Ariane understood going outside Kabul was a dangerous endeavor for anyone, let alone for a Christian woman in an Islamic country. She had known several very committed Christians who have been killed in Afghanistan.
“It’s not a question of being Christian to stay alive, and to be protected from the Taliban or bombings…,” she says. “It’s just by the grace of God and maybe he has other plans.”
Recognizing the only way to continue helping the least of these in Kabul was a direct appeal, she agreed to meet the Taliban at an undisclosed location. The Taliban was willing to provide her an escort and have her nephew accompany her.
During her meeting, the Taliban leader wanted to know the reason Ariane had remained in Afghanistan for 20 years and specifically why she wanted to help the Hazara people group.
Ariane passionately described her desire to help the poorest of the poor, those who are starving and had little access to education. Even though her husband had died, she felt called to continue the work.
The Taliban official granted her permission to continue the mainstream school and three schools for children with disabilities, however not the vocational training program for young deaf, women.
While she felt disappointment not all the programs could continue, she felt relieved the schools could keep their doors open.
“I think we cannot do anything if we do not have the Holy Spirit to guide us, and sometimes to protect us,” she explains in her charming French accent. “Everything I have done is only by God’s grace.”
Right before Christmas of 2022, the Taliban announced girls would be restricted from studying at university or pursuing any education beyond elementary school. Furthermore, women have been banned from working at NGOs. Military have been policing the streets to ensure these mandates are followed.
Paradoxically, in trying to protest against the strict sanctions against women in Afghanistan, many international non-governmental organizations have ceased operations in the country, most harming the very women and girls they once served and leaving an even wider expanse of need to fill.
Without female staff occupying Le Pélican and older female students unable to attend, “the school was emptied of [their] smiles, the girls’ laughter, the cleaning ladies’ joyful excitement in the kitchen, and I was sunk into a morose melancholy,” she describes.
The irony is that these edicts restricting opportunities for women, has unveiled even more of their resilience, tenacity and fortitude, and of one woman in particular.
Even when faced with the news that Afghan women and girls could not attend school, Ariane is unwavering. She remembers her late husband, Jacques, reminding her that Le Pélican is not their project, but the Lord’s, and the Lord will provide.
“So our challenge, and mine in particular,” she says, “is not to abandon these people and leave Afghanistan. My challenge is to focus on Jesus who told us in John 16:33, ‘Don’t lose heart, for I have overcome the world.’”
Light in the Darkness
Once more there are periods without electricity, internet, running water and reliable communication, and Ariane’s memories transport her back to 22 years ago during the first Taliban reign in 2000. Even when other parts of Kabul are covered in light, the Hazara district where Le Pélican resides remains in darkness, reminding Ariane that this community is often forgotten in the power distribution and by the rest of the population. At times the loneliness and injustice can feel overwhelming until she remembers that she is in fact, not alone.
“The Afghans’ strength of character pushes me forward,” she says. “I know that by the grace of God, Le Pélican will continue to help among this most vulnerable population.”
Like so many times before, Ariane has learned from setbacks that God is present when all hope feels lost.
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus,” she declares, “and don’t let us sink due to huge waves of fears, but let us walk behind him, who is even able to make us run on water.”
With a knowing smile, she continues, “I am strong enough to continue the work, by the grace of God.”